Indiana football: Finals grades after the Hoosiers finish 6-2
The Hoosiers’ season ended with an unfortunate thud, as Indiana dropped the Outback Bowl to Ole Miss.
But now that a few days have passed since the disappointment, it’s easier to see Indiana’s season as a success. The Hoosiers finished 6-2 while eliminating some of the demons that had plagued them for years, getting wins over Penn State, Michigan and at Wisconsin.
Why was Tom Allen’s IU squad so good? Let’s grade out the Hoosiers position-by-position:
The Hoosiers played two this season, even though they didn’t want to. One of the biggest goals headed into 2020 was to keep Michael Penix Jr. healthy, and that worked for the first 5 games of the season.
But against Maryland in late November, the starter fell to the Memorial Stadium turf on a scramble, ending his season with an ACL tear, the second to the same knee in his three-year career.
Although backup Jack Tuttle guided the Hoosiers to a victory in their next game, at Wisconsin, IU’s offense wasn’t the same. It was less dynamic — shocking, I know — without its most dynamic player. Tuttle was a good caretaker of the offense, particularly at Wisconsin, but when he needed to do more in the bowl game vs. Ole Miss, he didn’t pass the test. (In his defense, he played the second half with a separated throwing shoulder, so it was impressive he was on the field at all.)
With Penix and his cannon left arm, the Hoosiers could drive the ball down the field, had greater big-play ability and fully took advantage of the skills of their receivers. It made for a fun offense to watch.
Running backs: C-
In one of the bigger mysteries of the season for Indiana, the Hoosiers had a pedestrian running game.
Was that all on the running backs? No. But they shoulder some of the responsibility, particularly when the Hoosiers had difficulties in short yardage, which happened too frequently.
Starter Stevie Scott III finished with a team-high 561 yards and had 10 touchdowns, but he averaged only 3.6 yards per carry. Backup Sampson James, who was thought to be on the verge of a breakout after the way he had ended the previous season, finished with only 96 yards. Tim Baldwin Jr. had 141, taking significant advantage of his 22 carries. They combined for 14 receptions, 13 coming from Scott.
The stats didn’t match the quality of player, especially when watching those moments when Scott was barreling through the line in the red zone, showing off his physical running style. But IU was only 12th in the Big Ten in rushing yardage, averaging 108.6 with only a 3.1 yards-per-carry average.
At the beginning of the season, senior Ty Fryfogle was thought to be the sidekick to Whop Philyor.
Turns out, Fryfogle was pretty darn good in the lead role. In becoming the Big Ten’s Receiver of the Year, Fryfogle caught 37 passes for 721 yards and 7 touchdowns; average those numbers over a typical 12-game regular season, and Fryfogle would have finished with 56 catches for 1,081 yards and 11 scores.
Philyor was good too, although without as many big plays. The senior had a team-high 54 receptions but for only 495 yards with 3 TDs.
The two were about as sure-handed and as reliable as could be hoped for. Sophomore Miles Marshall was solid as a third option, and could come up with a big play down the field — he had a couple drops, also — averaging 15.3 yards on his 19 catches.
Tight ends: B+
Peyton Hendershot put his offseason troubles behind — he was arrested on misdemeanor charges in February stemming from an incident at his ex-girlfriend’s apartment — to have a quietly solid season.
The junior had 23 receptions for 151 yards and 4 touchdowns as he tried to rebuild his reputation. Allen had suspended him from team activities during the summer, before reinstating him before the start of the season.
And he was the primary tight end all season, with backup Matt Bjorson collecting only 1 reception.
Offensive line: C
The offensive line entered the season in a bit of a rebuild, needing to add three new starters, although it had veterans to choose from.
But injuries kept the line from coming together as much as had been anticipated. Only center Harry Crider started all 8 games, while no other teammate made more than 6 starts.
Perhaps that’s why Indiana’s running game never got untracked, as the Hoosiers line didn’t get the kind of push that had been anticipated, or at least hoped for. It was better in pass protection, giving up only 10 sacks on the season, but that statistic isn’t entirely telling either. Penix is solid in the pocket and has the athleticism to escape pressure, so he avoided a sack or two during the year.
Defensive line: B+
Although Indiana’s defensive line might not have been defined by a star player, the sum of its parts — and its depth — made it one of the better groups in the Big Ten.
The Hoosiers could go eight or nine deep at the position, keeping the linemen not only fresh but also effective. Jerome Johnson, the first-team All-Big Ten defensive tackle, might have had the best season statistically, with 4 sacks and an interception, but the unit as a whole was able to do its job well enough, like occupying blockers on the opponent’s offensive line to allow others to make plays. Sometimes, that’s the best indicator of a solid group up front; it freed up linebacker Micah McFadden, for instance, to make plays free of being harassed.
Few have as solid a duo as the Hoosiers, with McFadden and fellow junior Cam Jones.
Simply put, the duo made plays. McFadden, an All-Big Ten first-teamer, finished the season with team-highs in tackles (58), TFLs (10.5) and sacks (6) and he added 2 interceptions, while Jones, an honorable mention, had 35 tackles and 3 sacks. Backups James Miller and Aaron Casey had solid seasons, and Thomas Allen did too until his season ended with an injury after four games.
But the season at linebacker was mostly about McFadden and Jones, who are as good at playing in the box as they are outside it, and that versatility helped the Hoosiers’ defense be one of the best in the Big Ten.
What more can you say about this group, other than it was fantastic?
Cornerback Tiawan Mullen, a first-team All-American, and safety Jamar Johnson were All-Big Ten first-team, while corner Jaylin Williams was on the second-team and safety Devon Matthews was third. Taylor Reese turned in a solid year as the No. 3 cornerback and Bryant Fitzgerald was consistent, although perhaps not specular, at the hybrid husky, filling in for Marcelino Ball after the starter was hurt during the preseason.
The group made up one of the best units in the Big Ten, rivaled only by the outfits at Ohio State and Northwestern. It was good. Mullen is one of the best lockdown cornerbacks in the country, as he showed with his 3 interceptions and 4 other breakups. But he’s a well-rounded player too, as he collected 3.5 sacks and 38 tackles. Johnson was fantastic, seeming to come up with one game-changing play every Saturday; he had 4 picks, 43 tackles and a sack.
The unit played with swagger and confidence that permeated the rest of the defense and was a big reason why the Hoosiers finished the year with a 6-2 record.
Special teams: A
The two kicking specialists — place-kicker Charles Campbell and punter Hayden Whitehead — turned in excellent seasons.
Campbell, second-team All-Big Ten, hit all but one of his 11 field goal attempts, and it’s not as if all were gimmes. He was 5-of-6 from at least 40 yards, including perfect on all 3 of his attempts from 50 or more. Hayden Whitehead, an honorable mention, put 11 of his 39 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard-line while averaging 43.4 yards per boot.
Also, kickoff specialist Jared Smolar put half of his 44 kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, an important but often overlooked statistic.
Indiana only returned 6 kickoffs, mostly choosing to take the free pass to the 25-yard line, although Reece was solid on punt returns, averaging 8.1 yards per return.
Coverage was good, giving up a long of 55 yards on a kickoff and 13 yards on a punt.